- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Iwan Baan
- Architect Steven Holl Architects
This article originally appeared in AR 129: The Price of Building.
It’s a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon in southwest China. On a parking lot next to the Sichuan gymnasium people are enjoying the weather on an improvised outdoor terrace. Someone is playing a saxophone. Others are drinking tea, chatting or playing mahjong. Everyone is eating sunflower seeds. You can hear the sound of cracking shells from afar.
A gigantic volume consisting of five bright white interconnected towers forms the backdrop to this laid-back activity. The towers have rectangular windows that are rigidly placed in the facade and are crossed by structural earthquake diagonals. Where parts of the volumes are cut away the facades are made of glass. Some towers have voids, with big abstract objects. This is the Sliced Porosity Block, an inner-city mixed-use project by Steven Holl in Chengdu, China.
Chengdu is the 10-million inhabitant capital of China’s southwest province, Sichuan. The city has a rich cultural background and is known for its pandas, its emerging service industry and perhaps most importantly, its slow pace and relaxed attitude: people in Chengdu claim they know how to enjoy life. Restaurants close later than everywhere in China and a lot of the city’s activity is public: eateries open their doors and windows to the street and people drink their tea in armchairs on the sidewalks.
The Sliced Porosity Block is a development by CapitaLand, one of the biggest developers in Asia rapidly developing its portfolio in China. The Chengdu project contains five floors of retail, of which three are underground. On top of this mall sit two commercial towers, a hotel, a block with short stay apartments and one with SOHO (small office/home office) apartments. The project revolves around the roof of the shopping mall, where the architect created publicly accessible plazas.
To achieve this, the roof of the shopping mall is gently connected to the street level on three sides of the block. The connection on the northeast side is part of the hotel that will open next year. The access on the southwest side has generous stairs; the one on the northwest side consists of a combination of stairs and inviting escalators to attract the passer-by onto the elevated landscape. There, one arrives on the first of three plazas that provide a view over the surrounding urban fabric. A coffee shop and a couple of bars surround a pond. Via a second plaza with a pond, one arrives at the third plaza, providing a spectacular view of the city of Chengdu, framed by the sliced tower blocks. Here, the contrast between Holl’s bright white concrete building and the grey grizzled background of the city becomes evident.
The public space on the three plazas is being used intensively on this Sunday afternoon. Old people chat or sleep on benches and young parents chase their playing toddlers. Surrounded by the sound of Christmas carols, couples are enjoying lattes and ubiquitous amateur photographers shoot every corner of the square. There’s even a group of youngsters drinking cans of cheap beer. This is as public as a square can be.
The shopping mall below the square is organised around three atriums, which are also intensively used by the public. In one of them, a singing contest takes place, in another people watch a car presentation, eating self-brought snacks. The atriums are lit by skylights, which are covered by water – the ponds of the public squares. According to explanatory signs, the atriums and ponds are named after three different gorges, inspired by a poem by Chengdu poet Du Fu. This constantly repeated theme of the gorges in the public space and the shopping mall seems to tap into a combination of nostalgia and longing for ‘Chineseness’. At the same time, it has probably been the way to seduce either client or government about the ‘local component’ of this project.
The Sliced Porosity Block tells the whole story of a rapidly transforming country. A country that moves from production to consumption, that starts to drink coffee with whipped milk instead of flower tea, that listens to Christmas carols, and institutes a light pavillion by Lebbeus Woods to create a ‘building within a building’. This is a country that is on the bumpy road of modernisation, with architects playing a key role.
For a long time now, Steven Holl has been involved in this transformation by challenging and improving building typologies in China. He has explored the concept of the residential compound with the Linked Hybrid Building in Beijing and that of the big office building with the Groundscraper for Vanke headquarters in Shenzhen. In Chengdu, Holl again pushes the boundaries of a typology: that of the inner-city mixed-use building. He successfully connects the podium with the towers, but more importantly, he very convincingly turns the roof of the mall into an open and attractive public space.
It’s incredible how the architect manages to literally drag people up onto the roof of the building. It feels, however, as if the roof design could have had more attention. A lot of energy has been invested in the spectacle of the objects in the tower voids, whereas the landscaping in the plazas has not had nearly as much attention. Given the humongous scale of the project, the overall detailing of the project though is fairly good, especially for west Chinese standards.
One of the questions remaining is how the public quality and open atmosphere of the roof will be maintained when the hotel opens and whether amateur photographers and beer-drinking youngsters will still be welcome.